Barack Obama on Monday pledged to speed up the availability of high-speed internet across the US by nearly doubling the availability of airwaves during the next 10 years.
A memorandum signed by the US president would free up 500 megahertz of spectrum held by both the US government and US corporations to fulfil an ever-growing demand for broadband services.
But the pronouncement comes as relations between the White House and the communications industry are increasingly fraught. Mr Obama’s move represents his first high-stakes pledge after months of wrangling between the Federal Communications Commission and the leading communications providers in the US – including Comcast, Verizon and AT&T – over planned tougher regulations.
The proposal outlined by Mr Obama would force US government agencies that are sitting on under-utilised spectrum to give up the airwave space. The White House is also looking to television companies to give up spectrum voluntarily.
The spectrum would then be auctioned, which could raise tens of billions of dollars in proceeds that would compensate the companies and help pay for a new $12bn to $16bn network for public safety.
But companies have been sceptical about the plan. The National Association of Broadcasters, a lobby group, on Monday said Congress’s “first priority” should be to investigate “fallow” or unused spectrum. One broadcast executive told the Financial Times that it appeared that the White House was moving away from talks of mandatory or involuntary recovery of spectrum.
“Nobody opposes a voluntary plan,” the person said.
Wireless internet companies like AT&T and Verizon, which have seen a steady increase in demand for their services given the explosion in consumers’ use of smartphones and other devices, are eager to increase their spectrum supply.
Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, said: “It is going to help all the wireless broadband providers be able to keep pace with demand and it feeds into the goal of the National Broadband Plan introduced by the FCC.”
But she added that, at the moment, AT&T and Verizon had enough spectrum to increase their networks and could be alarmed at being shut out of a future auction for more spectrum. Such a move, which analysts say appears increasingly likely, would strongly benefit those companies’ rivals.
The White House on Monday focused on the economic impact of its broadband plan. In a speech at the New America Foundation, economic adviser Lawrence Summers said the policy was a “win” three times over.
“It creates prosperity and jobs while at the same time raising revenue for public purposes like public safety and increasing our ability to compete internationally,” Mr Summers said.
“At their root these initiatives involve the government acting as a catalyst for private sector investments and growth.”
But the communications industry has said the Obama administration’s overall policy on broadband, and a move to seek greater regulatory oversight of companies were doing the opposite.
The spectrum policy outlined by the White House is technically separate from the regulatory proposal, but the politics are nevertheless becoming difficult for the administration.
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